Jacobean Tragic Comedy is a Visual Feast
“You have a strong appetite but you have to let your stomach settle. “
Elizabeth to Agnes
The title of this modern play reminds us of Thomas Middleton’s 1657 Women Beware Women, a Jacobean tragedy of murder, incest, sex and murder. The play Women Beware the Devil by Lulu Raczka is set in the 1640s at the start of the English Civil War. Lady Elizabeth de Clare (Lydia Leonard) is doing her utmost to keep the family house and estate in the family. It was acquired 500 years before when her ancestor came across with William the Conqueror. Her feckless brother Edward (Leo Bill) shows no sign of providing the essential heir to prevent the house going to some obscure cousin. Edward is a Royalist and very censorious of the Parliamentarian attacks on Charles I.
The framing of the play is a talk from the Devil himself (Nathan Armarkwei-Laryea) whose miniature horns are hidden under his Tudorbethian hat. The first mention of witchcraft is when stable hand Agnes (Alison Oliver) is summoned to Lady de Clare in the great house. Lady de Clare has heard of Agnes’s reputation as a witch and she wants to recruit her to use her sorcery to ensure an heir. Agnes protests that she is not a witch but the alternative to being employed is for her to be hanged as a witch.
A wife has been found for the hapless Edward, the daughter of a rich ship builder, Katherine (Ioanna Kimboek) but Edward cannot bring himself to consummate the marriage with the daughter of someone from trade. However he has had no such qualms with Anna (Carly-Sophia Davies) the serving maid nor indeed for the incestous coupling with his own sister Elizabeth. Edward spends the marriage feast ruing the lack of Beef. It seems the estate has suffered crop failures and now the cattle have died. The reason? Witchcraft of course!
Katherine bonds with Agnes but no amount of advice to the wife can help Katherine seduce Edward. Elizabeth gets impatient and Agnes recants her oath to be a good person and enlists the help of the Devil. Agnes becomes the well dressed bride and Katherine the maid. Agnes will find ways to seduce Edward and the fact that the servant Anna is pregnant by a De Clare may solve Elizabeth’s problem. Agnes will source meat remarkably similar to Beef as her way to Edward’s heart as well as playing the all fours dog impression game to arouse Edward.
There will be a visit or two from the Witchfinder, definitely a Cromwellian. There are folk type period songs from Adam Cork sung by Joan (Aurora Dawson-Hunte) to go with the Vermeer setting.
Lydia Leonard is always a delight to watch, clad here in black satin and velvet trying to hang on to her country mansion, her stage presence is commanding. Leo Bill gets loads of laughs for his “not that nice but dim” Edward and has a sumptuous wig. Alison Oliver and Ioanna Kimboek are both starting out on stage careers but show promise.
Rupert Goold’s production is a Jacobean romp. Visually this production is sheer delight with Miriam Buether’s black and white chequerboard set, dark panelling and leaded windows with Tim Lutkin’s lighting outlining the stage and creating momentary dramatic stripes like an optical illusion. The feasting table is lit by candles and loaded with Jacobean imagery including Yorick’s skull. The four poster bed will rise impressively from the stage floor for seamless bedroom scenes.
This play is the antithesis to The Crucible where witchcraft accusations are used to grab the land of others. Here a maid finds social mobility and becomes the one preserving for posterity the past, using witchcraft. Do see it and don’t take it too seriously and like me, you could find yourself enjoying it!
Women Beware the Devil
Written by Lulu Raczka
Directed by Rupert Goold
Director: Rupert Goold
Set Designer: Miriam Buether
Lighting Designer: Tim Lutkin
Composer and Sound Designer: Adam Cork
Costume Designer: Evie Gurney
Movement and Intimacy: Imogen Knight
Fight Director: Jonathan Holby
Running Time: Two hours 15 minutes with an interval
Booking to 25th March 2023
London N1 1TA
Phone: 020 7359 4404
Tube: The Angel
Reviewed by Lizzie Loveridge
at the Almeida
at the evening performance
on 23rd February 2023